The Border Crisis of the Migrant-Slave

Home News & Politics The Border Crisis of the Migrant-Slave

Black mobility, as seen in the case of the Haitian migrant-slave, is not only a threat to the sovereign-national border, but to the border-as-limit to the meaning of emancipation and agency writ large. 

By Tea S. Troutman

Borders—like the nation-states, colonies, and otherwise legible cartographies of sovereignty they demarcate,—are first and foremost anti-black. That’s it. Send tweet. I did in fact already send a few tweets regarding the jarring reports of anti-black violence against the thousands of Haitian migrants at the united states border in Del Rio, Texas. In a thread, I referenced the work of Saidiya Hartman in Scenes of Subjection and Jared Sexton in Amalgamation Schemes, to outline that what we perceive to be a crisis “at” the border or a crisis “of” borders themselves are not invalid interpretations. Even so, they serve as mystifications of the anti-blackness that precedes both the constitution of states and their borders, and of the making of the world itself. 

Hartman and Sexton’s work are key here in demystifying the border crisis as simply an issue of colonial and imperialist violence with. Again, this is not an invalid critique, but is in fact one which flattens the antagonism of the border itself into a conflict that can be eradicated through meeting the demand for the abolition of borders and the reconstitution of the world around them into an anti-imperialist, decolonial arrangement. As the first tweet of my thread names, the abolition of borders won’t stop the violence against the black [migrant], because the black migrant is a slave. 

As Frank B. Wilderson III argues in Afropessimism, “Slavery is a relational dynamic—not an event and certainly not a place in a space like the South; just as colonialism is a relational dynamic—and that relational dynamic can continue to exist once the settler has left or ceded governmental power. And these two relations are secured by radically different structures of violence.” It is imperative to understand this relational dynamic, which is foundational to the structural antagonism between The Slave and The World—that is to say, it is the terms of captivity by which the slave is bound to the world. This is the global arrangement through which the unceasing black suffering makes black flesh always available to The World, and makes the distinction between the migrant and the migrant-slave much clearer. That distinction is Blackness. 

As Jatella succinctly offers in a related thread on the matter, “[T]he black at the border is treated differently than the nonblack because antiblack violence follows a different organizing logic than imperial violence, which is predicated on the securitization of nation via exploitation and partition. Imperial violence cannot be effective without antiblack violence but antiblack violence at the border demonstrates that what is at hand is more than maintaining the racial ordering of empire. Rather, empire, as such, only comes into coherence via antiblack violence.” 

RECOMMENDED: A Pearl Cast Before Swine: How US Imperialism and Jovenel Moïse Have Strangled Haiti

Hartman reminds us that black migration and movement have long been a means for seeking freedom, citizenship and otherwise forms of asylum, as “locomotion was definitive of personal liberty.” Yet, she adds, black mobility also articulated the limits of emancipation and the constrained terms of agency. Therefore, black mobility, as seen in the case of the Haitian migrant-slave, is not only a threat to the sovereign-national border, but to the border-as-limit to the meaning of emancipation and agency writ large. 

This border crisis—which I interpret as the border between slave/world, human/slave or being/non-being—is one that Sexton names as a crisis of border-as-colorline, which becomes more fluid or rigid in relation to civil society’s anxieties about the slave’s resistance. Taken together, the border crisis of the migrant-slave is thus one that is inherently tied to the black movement towards freedom as resistance, and the threat which triggers a global (negro)phobic anxiety which Frantz Fanon describes in Black Skin, White Masks  as one where in which the black, as the object which causes the fear, “need not to be there, [as] it is enough that somewhere the object exists: is a possibility.” 

Given the structuring of such threat and anxiety under the logics of global negrophobia, there need not be a migrant-slave nor its place of origin present, as even its possibility is enough to register such a phenomena as a border crisis. This is particularly evident in the case of Haiti and the Haitian migrant-slave. Given that the migrant-slave, as the object of fear, warrants the changes in the fluidity/rigidity of the border of being/non-being, Haiti as a black state of resistance serves the same purpose for (as opposed to in) The World. It is constituted in the global imaginary as always a space of political crisis, a state failure, (unceasing slave) revolt, the progenitor of black revolutionary struggle (for sovereignty) and the state of anarchy through which the non-black state must constitute itself against, in order to secure its sovereign hegemony. Haiti itself, as one of the black diaspora’s many “Little Africas,” thus registers in the psyche of The World as a space which Achille Mbembe describes in On the Postcolony  as “the very figure of what is null, abolished, and in its essence, in opposition to what is: the very expression of that whose special feature is to be nothing at all.” 

Returning again to Hartman’s point that, “it is clear that the freedom experienced was in the search and not the destination,” which I take to mean that the migrant-slave is always in flight, and on a journey towards a freedom that exists nowhere. This, along with Mbembe’s description of the way Africa registers in The World as null and abolished, I argue that the migrant-slave’s journey is one of no sovereign cartographic origin nor destination. As that which is a subject of no nation, no home to speak of or who is distinguished by possessing no place to be returned, it is therefore clear that the crisis of the migrant-slave at and as border presents a crisis of repatriation itself. 

RECOMMENDED: These Are The Companies Profiting From Detaining Migrants At Border Concentration Camps

The visual spectacle of the Haitian migrant-slave is distinguished through the imagery of horses, whips, and crossing the waters towards asylum matters. As does the way in which the state is seeking to “make amends” for such violences. As RAW points out in her tweet, “It’s really not lost on me that the White House liberated horses from human tyranny at the border, but not Haitians. They’d rather set the horses free, than to allow Black people asylum. I really don’t know what it’s going to take for y’all to get it.” RAW’s critique, which points out the state’s refusal of Haitian asylum, while simultaneously reforming the mode of policing-as-capture, presents the fungibility of the migrant-slave as currency in the fight for migrant’s rights and immigration reform. 

It is also in this imagery—especially when juxtaposed against say, that of migrant children in cages, the video of VPOTUS Kamala Harris’s Guatemala Border Crisis address or other now infamous associations with the American “border crisis,”—which works against the notions of “racial ambiguity” that constitutes immigration (and by extension, “immigration rights and reform”) as an issue of empire, capitalism and colonialism under which we all suffer, where we begin to see the reconfiguration of the border-as-colorline as a rigidly brown-over-black arrangement. The distinctive images of the Haitian migrant-slave as and at the border being in the same frame as the use of the whip and the horse to impede their crossing of (troubled) waters towards an impossible asylum reminds us, as Rizvana Bradley puts it, “Photographic visuality, in other words, cannot be disentangled from the foundationally antiblack metaphysics of the modern world.”

Given that the two definitions of repatriation include matters of monetary polic(e)y as it is “conversion of foreign currency into one’s local currency,” as well as a matter of foreign polic(e)y, “the act of restoring or returning someone or something to its country of origin,” the border crisis of the migrant-slave, as a citizen of no place and as the flesh currency necessary to stabilize the border of (sovereign) being/non-being, the terms of what it means “to repatriate” falls apart in the face of the migrant-slave.

The impossibility of asylum and repatriation for the migrant-slave thus comes down to its fundamental distinction from its non-black human counterparts—who possess the capacity to be considered foreign nationals who belong to a nation of origin—comes down to the social death of the migrant-slave. According to Wilderson this distinction means, “Social death bars the slave from access to narrative at the level of temporality; but it also does so at the level of spatiality… just as there is no time for the slave, there is no place of the slave. The slave’s reference to his or her quarters as a ‘home’ does not change the fact that it is a spatial extension of the master’s dominion.” Africa, and its diasporic “Little Africas,” are all places made to stand in for the door of no return. 

Rethinking the term “repatriation” as it relates to that of black flesh into the currency of The World to be used in its making, allows us to see, geographically, how Hortense Spillers’s oft-cited distinction between “body” and “flesh” as “the central one between captive and liberated subject positions,” also makes clear: before (geo)body comes the flesh. Given this, I invite us all to reconsider the phenomena of Haiti and the migrant-slave as emblematic of the logic that it is the slave which precedes the colony/nation-state, and not the colonial order that produces the slave. In doing so, we might (finally) all agree that it is not (just) the borders, nor the states that they fortify that must be abolished, but in fact it is everything that must go. Put differently, to grant asylum to the migrant-slave, we must off the world. 

Tea Sierra Troutman is a retired community organizer turned Geography Ph.D student at The University of Minnesota. They are the social media manager at WYV, as well as a yogi, cyclist, cinephile and devoted pet parent. Tea is from Macon, GA and their work focuses broadly on The Black South, anti-blackness, urbanism, social justice movements and the formation of black diasporic music cultures. Follow them on IG/Twitter @trapteas

JOIN WEAR YOUR VOICE ON PATREON — Every single dollar matters to us—especially now when media is under constant threat. Your support is essential and your generosity is why Wear Your Voice keeps going! You are a part of the resistance that is needed—uplifting Black and brown feminists through your pledges is the direct community support that allows us to make more space for marginalized voices. For as little as $1 every month you can be a part of this journey with us. This platform is our way of making necessary and positive change, and together we can keep growing.